You know, someday we're going to look back on all this and plow right into a parked car. - Bob Rossney (email@example.com)
Unless you're a WELL user of a certain vintage, you've probably never heard of the backroom conference, and you will likely have less than no interest in this little jeremiad. If so, count yourself fortunate.
If, for some reason, you decide to read this anyway, a bit of background. "The vile figtex" was a semi-affectionate nickname for the two people who managed the WELL, Cliff Figallo (login name "fig") and John Coate ("tex"). The WELL was originally owned 50/50 by NETI and Point Foundation (home of the Whole Earth Catalog). Unfortunately, while this enabled the WELL to truthfully claim to have been born of poor but honest parents, it also meant that neither owner was ever in a position to invest money in the WELL when it needed a capital infusion, although the users were known to pitch in back in those early days - even to the point of buying a replacement computer.
In the summer of 1991, NETI, which was in the process of going bankrupt in an ugly way, sold its half of the WELL to Bruce Katz, who had made his fortune at Rockport, the shoe company. At the same time, trouble was looming as the WELL, which at that time was growing, started to overshoot its technical infrastructure.
I wrote this some years after the described events, to a WELLbeing who had not been around at the time. WELL login names are given in parentheses.
Journey with me through the mists of time, back to late 1991, to an era when the Vile Figtex still roamed the WELL. The system was shaky. The hardware needed a major upgrade. The symptoms had been growing and were obvious to anyone who used the system and was paying attention - so obvious that we didn't even bother to argue about it any more. We only argued about what should be done.
Goes the Vile Figtex to the Fall 1991 board meeting, the first after Bruce had bought NETI's half of the WELL. Cliff (fig) had a plan. He was gonna raise prices and do a couple other things to get money and buy some new iron to prevent the WELL from collapsing back into the primordial ooze.
The board turned it down. Flat.
In retrospect, the reason probably was that Cliff assumed that he didn't have to explain that the system was on the verge of collapse and quick action was necessary. He wouldn't have had to explain it to anyone who was active on the system. Most of the board members, unfortunately, weren't.
So the Vile Figtex returned. In the aftermath of that board meeting, John Coate (tex) quit the WELL's employ, which was a hell of a shock - it was like Mommy moving out. Cliff started making ominous noises about his future with the WELL, which were even more alarming coming from someone who was not normally Chatty Cathy.
There was dread among the WELL's hosts and longtime users. Stewart Brand (sbb) and Kevin Kelly (kk), who were board members at that time, began posting about the troubled situation. Unfortunately, the substance of their posts was "Don't worry, be happy." Needless to say, this did not increase the optimism level.
(Next: the joys of modern democracy)
It appeared that the board was, shall we say, somewhat out of touch with the underlying realities of the - hold it. Let's not be mealymouthed here. The board had its collective head up its ass.
It seemed to several people, who all seemed to get the same idea at the same time, that perhaps we should try to get the Board to accept a user/host member, who could (ahem) enlighten the board about what the fuck was actually going on. Somebody proposed me as a possible patsy. The next thing I knew, a mob was carrying me to the palatial WELL boardroom on its shoulders, waving torches and singing "We Shall Overcome". Seriously, it was about the fastest I've ever seen a consensus form anywhere. I was astonished and moved by just how many people were saying I could do this important task without screwing up the WELL, and how many were willing to trust me with it. No one asked me first, and in retrospect, I kind of wish they had...but then, who knew?
Of course, a thrash followed. (That hardly needed saying, did it?) The voice of the voiceless was not being heard; selecting a possible board member informally by acclamation was inherently oppressive. The phrase "smoky backroom deal" was mentioned with no sense of irony whatever. And it wasn't possible that such a consensus could have formed of itself; clearly, I had been involved in an evil conspiracy behind the scenes, and therefore should not be proposed to the board as a potential member.
Much ranting followed on all sides of a many-sided debate, along with a protracted discussion of procedures. (One memorable remark from that period: "No one actually wants to *do* this. They just want to *talk* about it.") Eventually, and we're talking maybe four months from the time the idea was first floated, a vote was held. There were various excellent candidates put forward, but yours truly ended up polling most of the vote.
(Next: the center cannot hold)
So I went to the next board meeting, at the WELL's palatial digs in a rotting warehouse in Sausalito. The board was a little hesitant about putting me on it - the election the hosts had held was not binding in any way, of course, since the whole idea of having a host on the board was something we'd cooked up ourselves - but I was welcomed and asked to sit in as a guest for the time being. I heard much that sounded good, many promises to pay closer attention to the state of the system and the need for timely capacity increase.
But the WELL was still visibly heading into the tank, with more and more malfunctions, disk overflows, downtime, poor performance, stressed staff, and an increasingly testy user base. After what had been said at the the board meeting, I was optimistic, but this was long before I recollected that talk is cheap.
Meanwhile, Cliff had been dealing with more and more problems. Bruce was ordering him to "Fix the damn thing!" without giving him any money to do so. (The board hadn't let him raise the monthly fee. While it had been suggested that, with at least one owner with some bucks, the WELL might hope to see some investment capital made available to it, this hope proved unfounded.) Also, as Cliff kept pointing out, he was having to do the job of a technical manager, a financial director, and a town mayor, and felt less than well-qualified for the second and at sea in the first; his expertise was in community management, and having to juggle all three of those jobs would have been a severe overload even for that probably-mythical person with all three skill sets. But his protests were to no avail.
So, at the April meeting of the WELL board of directors (by which time I had been formally voted onto said august body), he announced his resignation and gave 3 months' notice.
(Next: what a tangled web)
Between the events of past months and the sorry state of the system generally, this development was not greeted with joy by the WELL's contributors. To put it mildly. Everything seemed to be falling apart, and Cliff's resignation was a sort of final blow. People began to wonder out loud whether the WELL was going to go down one of these days and just never come back up.
In the midst of this, David Gans (tnf) invited a dozen or so fellow WELL users to his house one night, to perform some reality-checking on their fears for the WELL and try to see whether there was anything useful they could do. One of the guests had a private conference that wasn't being used, so they decided to continue their discussion in there. (This conference happened to be named "backroom" - it had led previous lives as a private gay conference and then a private SM conference, but both times another name had eventually been settled on, so the backroom conference had never actually been used.)
A day or two later, I, as the official Host on the Board, was invited to join the conference so that I might hear the concerns and eventually convey to the board the document these folks planned to write.
(Next: any port in a storm)
I have to say that when I was first invited into the backroom conference, I was already in a fragile state vis-a-vis the board. The second meeting had made it apparent to me that Bruce intended to control the board, and that the structures simply were not there to prevent it; the procedure was very informal, no voting, which generally means that to the loudest mouth go the spoils. And he was and is nothing if not a talker.
It was also becoming more and more clear to me that not only was the WELL headed in a truly bad direction, what with Cliff's resignation, but I was proving to be useless as as a liaison from the contributors to the board. No one was rude to me, but neither was anyone paying attention to what I had to say. Any more than to Cliff. I was getting fairly desperate.
Here was this group of people, who saw what was going on and were willing to get off their duffs and out of denial and try to do something. Most of them, as it happened, were trusted friends. I all but fell into their arms, weeping with gratitude. When I first came to the conference and read the ten or twelve topics there, I may indeed have wept. Thank God. Someone I could share this burden with. It was really becoming almost insupportable, and for obvious reasons I didn't want to discuss it in public, at least not until I'd sorted out my thoughts.
So we shared our perceptions, all of us: tried to formulate exactly where this radical disconnection between board and WELL was, what had caused it, and how the board and owners might be approached in a way they might be receptive to. Searched the WELL for clues and insights (this situation was being discussed all over the public conferences, as you might imagine). Thrashed out every aspect of the problem in endless detail.
Then came the retreat. This event was a long-planned three-day get-together of the board, the staff, and a few invited guests to discuss the WELL's future. It was held, as indeed you might imagine, in Bolinas. The food was marvelous. Gerard (boswell) later told me, on being apprised of this fact: "Of course. They always feed you well before they kill you."
(Next: fear in Bolinas)
The retreat was...an intense emotional experience. Once there, we repaired to the porches for an outdoor buffet and some informal chat. I hung out for a while with our sysadmins. They both knew well, of course - who better - that we needed cash, the sooner the faster the quicker the better. But it seemed that these immediate practical matters, in the eyes of the board, were a distraction from what we were really there to talk about.
None of the guests were on the WELL - some had accounts, but they weren't participants in the conferences. (But more of this anon.) All of 'em were what you might call "cool" people, though - ex-astronauts, things like that. The agenda was interesting. I thought at first I was looking at a printout of the more blue-sky, speculative topics from the WELL's policy conference: the future of online conferencing, the role of the Internet, handling anonymity, the tricky question of who controls any subsidiary use of posts. All the things we'd collectively hashed over for the last few years.
But it quickly became apparent that not only had none of the participants - apart from me, Cliff, Elliot Fabric (elliot) and some staff members - read those topics, none seemed to know such a conference existed or might be usefully mined for information and ideas. And there didn't seem to be any time set aside from talking about "The WELL's Role in Politics and Culture for the Next Millenium" to discuss the somewhat more pressing topic of "How the WELL Can Survive the Next Six Months."
There was no moderator. He who spoke loudest ruled. You can, I'm sure, imagine what happened. A few of us tried to go against the tide, only to be taken aside during breaks and told we were being negative. Yeah. Damn right. Lots of blue-sky speculation. Lots of stuff with no grounding in either technical or community reality. Lots of talk that revealed that the speaker wanted to "create" something with the "tools" the WELL offered without realizing that there was, as they say, already a "there" there. Various flat statements to the effect that real community was impossible online, that the WELL's purpose was to provide private conferences for cool nonprofits and such, that the "users" were terribly negative and rude and had probably led to Cliff's resignation and should be kept carefully fenced away from the staff (God forbid they should have access to the board).
The last day, Sunday, when Bruce announced buoyantly that everything with the WELL was all right now and so we could get to work on all this interesting new stuff instead of working on repairs, I had finally had enough. Spilled my temper across a long conference table straight at him. John (loca) claims I pounded the table. That part I don't remember. What I do remember, quite vividly, is standing with Nancy Rhine (nancy) in the parking lot a few minutes later, both of us crying our eyes out at the loss we saw looming.
I had been able to log in from the retreat. I was going to ask for advice about tactics to get through to the board, but once I'd started the topic, the only thing I could bring myself to write was:
(Next: the countdown to disaster)
I was deciding that I'd have to resign from the board. A: I wasn't accomplishing a damn thing to mediate between board and users; I might even have been doing harm. B: as long as I was on the board, a lot of people were going to feel like things were being taken care of and they didn't need to worry too much about the WELL's future. C: a corporate board member has certain duties, duties that were headed straight into conflict with what I owned the community I represented.
I said as much in the backroom conference, where these sentiments were not greeted with joy. Some believed I could still do something useful as a board member. Others thought I had an obligation to stay on the board. I dithered. But I knew I was going to have to do something.
The backroom conference decided to meet in person. So we all hauled up to Berkeley and talked. The agenda: what the fuck can we do that might be constructive? Howard Rheingold (hlr) wanted to have a meeting with the owners and try to get them in a headlock re: the need for capital investment. There was also the looming question of who the heck was going to replace Cliff...some friend of Bruce's, God help us? Someone clueless about online community? Cliff and John, the Vile Figtex, between them had been the anchor of the community. Always there. Always mediating. We deeply feared what would happen if the board put in some MBA who thought of us as interchangeable "customers".
So Howard got together with the director of Point (whom he knew personally) and set up a meeting, with the understanding that this was a group of concerned longtime WELL users who felt they could offer valuable insights, et cetera, et cetera.
We also decided it was time to open up the backroom conference more. Since I was uneasy about having some of what I'd said open to a larger group, not all of whom were trusted personal friends, we decided to kill the old topics and start fresh. People proposed names of others they'd seen post about the WELL's troubles, and we agreed we'd put 'em on the list.
The next day, I posted my resignation in the WELL's news conference. We archived and killed the old topics and sent out email invitations to maybe 20 or 30 people. They wandered in.
(Next: peeking duck)
What happened next may not have been inevitable, but it sure seemed that way at the time.
Before we killed the topics, one of the members had archived them and then downloaded the files. But with everything that was going on, he forgot to pull the copies out of his directory; and he hadn't realized their permissions were set to world-readable. Someone found them and started spreading rumors to the board and among the users that there was some awful secret plot revealed in them.
I thought at the time that a lot of people had read them - which would have been distressing enough, having my private thoughts scattered hither and yon - but it's become apparent since then that not many people did. Which is worse, since it means they got their impression of the conference from rumors and were unable to check these against the actual posts.
And some of the people who did have access proclaimed themselves too moral to actually read the files, which did not stop some of them from telling bizarre stories about what they supposedly contained. I have heard an incredible variety of accounts about that conference: that backroom was a conspiracy to get the staff fired, that we were planning to buy the WELL ("pity I mislaid that million bucks I had lying around," I remarked the first time I heard this one), that we were trying to "take over" the WELL in some unspecified fashion, presumably so we might torment our enemies and reward our sycophants. I just recently found out that Cliff thinks it was organized to get rid of him, something that makes no sense at all given that it wasn't started until after he'd resigned; in fact, that was one of the things that triggered the realization of just how bad the situation was.
Anyway, rumors abounded, most of them distorted beyond any recognition. The person who'd made the archive removed the files as soon as he realized, of course, but the damage was done. I still don't know why people wanted to believe that a dozen or so widely-respected WELLbeings were involved in a vast conspiracy against the community's best interests...but judging by the results, apparently an awful lot of people wanted to do just that. Topics were started. Email made the rounds. Thrashes ensued. Nasty remarks in the news conference, nastier ones in the backstage conference, suggestions that we all be put on "trial" in the policy conference, pointed innuendo everywhere.
And of course, there was the fly - more precisely, the fowl - in the ointment. We had admitted Robert Lauriston (duck) to backroom Mark II, because he'd been making sensible and constructive remarks for the last couple of months about the WELL's situation and what might be done about it. It was a mistake.
It started with the comments in news, implications that he had found out about a new, darker conspiracy. Teasers, hints, innuendo. In private - in email and in backroom - he was saying that he'd read the files and found nothing in them that bothered him, and that he didn't believe I'd done anything wrong. Then he went out and posted in public that the board's representative had been "co-opted" by a "cabal", that I'd been spying on the board, that we were plotting against the WELL community, etc. Arguments ensued in backroom, ensuring that whatever momentum the group might have had was lost. More thrashing in public. More rumormongering in private. At one point, he emailed carefully-elided excerpts around, hoping to raise even more of a ruckus. Finally, at a time when he knew a lot of the people involved would be at a WELL party, he posted excerpts (again carefully edited) in a couple of conferences. After that, he was finally removed from the the backroom conference.
But the damage was done, and remains.
A lot happened around the WELL in the next months, although the backroom conference had nothing to do with most of it. A new director was hired, fortunately one with ties to the community. The system finally stabilized. A new conference opened for discussion of "meta" issues; members of backroom were explicitly stated to be ineligible for consideration as hosts of the conference. The meeting with the owners happened, sort of, but nothing came of it but talk; the group that went didn't get any promises or commitments in return, and it was soon forgotten.
I have not forgotten.